38 Studios holds a special place in the hearts of many gamers, including myself, as being a faint ray of hope in an otherwise darkening genre of gaming that has slowly been taken over by idea-barren realm of the corporate machina. While we might not all have been Phillies fans, we can still appreciate someone with a real passion for gaming - enough to try their hand at making their own.
First, though, there is some explanation on why this article - normally filed safely into a sub-category to be shortly argued about and then disappear into the ether of our webserver - would be put as a featured article here at r1ft.com, a title only held by a subpar review of a PVP system and an article on inaptly named MMO's.
The reason is simple: the MMO market is becoming saturated and needs help.
We, as gaming consumers, need a collective breath of fresh air. We need an underdog to cheer for. We need someone to believe in; to provide us with a good medium where we can spend unhealthy amounts of time in. We'd like to give you, 38 Studios, our money. We're sick of unoriginality and corporate herd mindsets infecting our beloved genre. We enjoy our escapism, but we're often left with the choice of playing a sub-par product or nothing at all.
So please listen to this one little suggestion from us: Please do not make another Fantasy MMO.
A little background on this for those that haven't heard. Curt Schilling, of '93 World Series / Philly Pitcher fame, likes MMO's. He made a game studio a year or so ago, with the intent to make his own MMO after he retired. He's chosen the Fantasy genre to pour his talent and salary into. Reference article, courtesy of Tom's Games, can be found here.
38 Studios is sporting (pun intended) some serious talent with Todd McFarlane (aka Spawn) and R.A. Salvatore (aka Drizzt). While it may be perceived that they have these two creative geniuses caged in their basement, slowly drawing their awesomeness from them via an intricate series of tubes into their upcoming MMO - it's more likely that they're just wasting their creative abilities trying to compromise with a preconceived game idea of Fantasy Setting X. [digress]
38 Studios, I implore you to heed this advice. You cannot compete with World of Warcraft, Age of Conan *and* Warhammer Online (just to name a few). The thing is - you don't want to. This demographic is highly spoken for, and rest assured that every gamer with a penchant for Elves, Orcs and shiny metal armor has plenty of geek outlets to choose from already. Going this route is an upward battle that can't be won - at best you'll be able to stake out a small portion of real-estate in an inflated market while nearby land goes undeveloped.
This nearby undeveloped land I'm talking about has various flavors. The RTS (Real Time Strategy), Science Fiction and First Person Shooter markets are still ripe for MMO development. Vampires and Goth haven't been done much. The post-Apocalyptic genre is still fresh as well, with only small-time projects being released until my far-off Fallout MMO is made. As a game designer, working on this very same post-Apoc project, even I admit that the genre is still untapped, even if this means making a game that in direct competition with the Fallout IP.
We also have multiple smaller genres yet unexploited, like Steampunk and Cyberpunk. While I admit this is no small task in choosing a genre to develop a game in, from a marketing and common sense perspective, the Fantasy genre is not only a bad business decision - it shows a lack of creative ingenuity that the MMO industry truly lacks at the moment. Every kid and adult that wants to play around with swords and magic in an online, massive environment has many well established choices already. Meanwhile, those that enjoy a more modern landscape or science-fiction based story are left with very little in established games. The non-Fantasy MMO market is barren at the moment, with only a few small competitors in a virtually untapped market, with players yearning for some sort of epic world they can pour their lives into.
You might be saying "We can make a great game!". I don't doubt for a moment that you can. Even a mediocre title with the names of McFarlane and Salvatore on it will do at least mildly well in a content-starved market. You could also easily make a game that's better than anything on the market. Some people will play it, most people won't. You'll attract "New Game Hoppers" - and lose them when they next big game comes out - and be left with a small, loyal fanbase. The problem lies within what I call the "MMO First Love Syndrome". Nearly every MMOer has undying affection to their first MMO. People stay loyal to their first games. Unfortunately, for over 80% of the MMO Fantasy genre, their first game was World of Warcraft.
Warcraft: While it's true you'll find people that love and hate the game, the truth is that most people love the game - and you can't talk to them, because they are a bit too busy sitting in front of their computer in their pajamas to go out into the sunlight or even read a normal website. Warcraft will always have a loyal fanbase, for no other reason than the social relationships people have developed in the game. That, along with a crack-like addictive treadmill gear/leveling system, virtually guarantees the life expectancy of WoW to be healthy for a long, long time. People, for some reason, will be content with advancing to level 500 and happy with the same recycled loot with adjusted stats. They stay because it's familiar to them. Moving a whole guild or friend circle to another game is not an easy task.
Another reason not to cater to the Fantasy market is niching. Warhammer and Age of Conan saw a deficit in WoW, and marketed to it: Player versus Player combat. Age of Conan went a step further, catering to those that might enjoy a "Mature" MMO, complete with excessive violence and nudity. Lord of the Rings did the opposite, and catered to a PVE only crowd (mainly) using a very well established Intellectual Property, and has only had mild success. Staying within the Fantasy realm, we have no niches left, and you're left at just reusing the same ideas, over and over. One can only kill so many sewer rats or Orcs before they go mad.
Part of the reason of this criticism comes from a recent interview with Steve Danuser courtesy of Jon Wood and MMORPG.com. I quote:Even Curt Schilling (better known for his fastball than his artistic abilities) provides a great amount of experience to the team. Schilling, according to Danuser, is used to accomplishing things that people think may be impossible. As a result, that attitude is passed onto the rest of the development team.
This is inspiring, but why does Curt need to try and achieve one unoriginal impossibility (creating yet another successful Fantasy MMO) and not go for one that kicks more ass, like creating a successful non-Fantasy MMO? You have the guy who created Spawn and the guy who wrote the Drizzt series of books - why not challenge them? Both would be just as comfortable in a non-Fantasy setting. Now, they're entering the MMO market with a challenge under the stigma of unoriginality.
In closing, 38 Studios, you have a company motto of: “How cool would it be if . . .”
How cool would it be if someone actually made a good non-Fantasy MMO?
I'll tell you: It would be cool of epic proportions. Dazzle us, 38 Studios. Your chosen genre is played out, past its time. Show us some of that ingenuity and creativity that we're so starved for. The hell with established business models and defacto consumer reports: If you want to win big, you have to put in all your chips.